Sarah Ruhl’s underworld tour de force♦
To some insiders, Sarah Ruhl is the darling of drama, a young playwright with a unique touch. The Clean House was successfully produced at the Wilma in 2005, and Eurydice is an even better work with a spectacular Wilma production. But Ruhl’s wacky suspension of logic takes some getting used to. The touches that wow the cognoscenti can seem overly precious to other audience members. For example, in The Clean House, Ruhl grabbed our attention by inventing a Portuguese-speaking maid who refused to do any housework. I admired other things in that play, but this character annoyed me.
To try to understand what Ruhl is doing, be aware that her style is far removed from classic American dramatists. She also eschews the shocking approach of Tracy Letts and Martin McDonagh (see my review of Theatre Exile’s Bug.). Considering Eurydice in particular, you can draw parallels with Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard. Like those two, Ruhl takes recognizable people from the past (albeit, in her case, mythical figures) and involves them in new situations. Exactly like Stoppard in The Invention of Love, Ruhl in Eurydice transports her characters across the River Styx into the land of the dead. However, where Stoppard and Churchill refer frequently to verifiable facts, Ruhl chucks background and back-story and immerses us in fantasy. One key to enjoying Ruhl’s work is to forget the strictures of logic and realize that, above all else, she expresses emotions.
The choice: Husband or father?
Ruhl retells the myth of Orpheus from the perspective of his wife, Eurydice, who dies on their wedding day and goes to the Underworld. Orpheus, you will recall, then travels there to bring Eurydice back to life. The playwright invents a deceased father and depicts the rekindling of Eurydice’s very first love, which she had with her father. Ruhl’s Eurydice must make a tough choice between returning to earth with her husband versus staying in Hades with her father.
In an odd opening scene, Orpheus and Eurydice become engaged while romping on a beach. Apparently Ruhl wants us to see that their match is tenuous, because Orpheus clearly is obsessed with music while his fiancé can’t carry a melody or stay in rhythm. This underlining of their differences is overly obvious and robs the denouement of surprise.
Other scenes are much more satisfying. Ruhl’s creation of three "stones" is particularly inspired. These are three commentators and expediters of action, sort of a combination of a Greek chorus and the witches from Macbeth. Their identity comes from the legend that Orpheus sang an autobiographical song that was so sad it made stones weep.
Ultimately Eurydice succeeds because Ruhl portrays basic human feelings about deceased loved ones. (She started writing this piece after the death of her own father.) Ruhl demonstrates the painful choices people must make about clinging to memories or moving forward. She also posits that people lose memory when they cross over into the Underworld. They not only cannot read letters that are handed to them; they don’t even know what a letter is and assume that the sheet of paper is something to wipe their feet with. This leads to a profound communication gap between father and daughter, and ultimately to a startling and touching final scene between husband and wife.
Offbeat musical score, too
Blanka Zizka and her team at the Wilma have mounted this work with all the inventiveness you could wish for, creating stunning visual effects. Mimi Lien designed the colorful sets and Oana Botez-Ban the costumes. Zizka commissioned Toby Twining to write an original vocal score that’s as offbeat as Ruhl’s script, combining scat singing with medieval madrigals.
Eurydice is played by Merritt Janson, making an impressive return to Philadelphia, where she appeared in the Amaryllis Theater’s cast for Tuesday. Ben Huber portrays the rather shallow Orpheus. Gene D’Alessandro, Cathy Simpson and Erin Reilly play the stones superbly, with clown-like comedy, impressive timing and perfect coordination when they speak in unison. Stephen Novelli plays the father with understated simplicity while Triny Sandoval is an adolescent, tricycle-riding jokester as the Lord of the Underworld.
The music is performed excellently from a catwalk overlooking the stage. Jorge Cousineau provides effective sound design.
Oddly, Ruhl’s characters remain at arm’s length from the audience. The playwright prizes emotion and spontaneity, but in the two Ruhl works I’ve seen— The Clean Room and Eurydice— artifice is always visible. Her inventive scripts earn admiration but the characters don’t really come alive. Ruhl is a sleight-of-hand magician putting on a dazzling show. Her greatest accomplishment is that, in the end, we are moved by the subtle way she reminds us of our own family relationships.
To read another review by Anne R. Fabbri, click here.
To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
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